On the frontside, ski accessories are generally fun to own, enhancing our comfort, our entertainment and our social reach, should we want to do that.
Who doesn’t enjoy boot warmers on those bitter days? Or smart watches that conveniently show us our incoming calls and text messages? Or those wireless earbuds? Or how about those apps that track our vital skiing statistics like top speed and total vertical? While not for everyone, these accessories allow skiers to feel connected even when they’re not at work or in school.
But when it comes to backcountry accessories, the stakes are raised considerably. It’s less about fun and games and more about keeping you alive.
When embarking on a backcountry ski adventure, let’s assume you’re already equipped with the basics of the basics: appropriate touring boots, skis and bindings, and smart layers to allow you to regulate your body temperature throughout the day. Following are some additional basics that also are considered mandatory accessories for backcountry trips:
Digital transceivers (beacons)
Avalanche transceivers are an absolute must when trekking in the backcountry with a group of friends or fellow adventure enthusiasts. They are small, light and are designed to strap around the waist or over the shoulder beneath your outer layer. Most transceivers sold these days are digital models, which are easier to use and generally faster at locating victims than their analog counterparts.
When set to “transmit” mode, the devices emit a pulsed radio signal. If someone gets buried in an avalanche, transceivers carried by others in the group are then set to “receive” in order to pick up the signal from beneath the snow. Receiving transceivers interpret the signal into a visual and/or audible display that assists in pinpointing the location. Many digital transceivers include an analog mode to make them compatible with both types of transceivers.
▪ Most digital transceivers on the market today range from $150-$350. Some of the top models include: Artex PLB, BCA Tracker, Spot Satellite GPS, Mammut Barryvox and Ortovox 3+.
This essential piece of equipment is worth far more than its weight in gold when trekking off the beaten path. These design-specific tools will dig victims out of the snow in an avalanche, help construct snow pits or shelters, and perform snow stability tests.
Popular models are constructed from plastic and aluminum alloy. Aluminum shovels offer the best strength-to-weight ratio, outperforming plastic shovels when it comes to snow removal. Plastic shovels are lighter in weight. Other considerations when shovel shopping include the shape and size of the blade. Smaller blades are easier to handle but less efficient at chopping and moving large amounts of snow. Larger blades can move more snow but take more strength to operate. Some shovel blades are flat, some are curved, and some models have serrated blades that help cut through snow and ice. Most dedicated backcountry adventurists own a variety of shovels and will pack the one best suited for the conditions at hand.
▪ Simple and inexpensive, this backcountry must-have typically falls into the $50 range. Some of the popular models are designed by Black Diamond, BCA, Mammut, Voile, Camp, FXR and Ortovox.
Avalanche airbag systems Inflated when an avalanche breaks loose, airbags expand a skier’s volume, allowing a victim to “float” closer to the surface while being swept away in a slide rather than being buried deeper. Being closer to the surface helps dramatically in the rescue effort. Generally, pack sizes range from 18 to 45 liters, and with the use of thinner materials, some brands can offer high-volume bags while maintaining a reasonable weight.
There are different systems on the market to consider. ABS systems inflate two high-volume bags on both sides of the bag. Cartridges and handles are good for a single use and must be replaced when deployed. Snowpulse systems are triggered by a cable that inflates a massive U-shaped balloon around the skier’s head, which both protect the skier’s head and helps guard from asphyxiation. JetForce technology uses a ventilator instead of a CO2 cartridge for inflation. The device extracts air from the atmosphere and fills a 200-liter canvas. The bag will deflate after a few minutes, creating a pocket of air around the avalanche victim.
▪ Airbag systems come in a varying range of technology, weight and ease of use options and can range from as little as $150 to $1,500 or more. Some popular brands include Mammut Flip Removable, BCA Float 25 Turbo, G3 Cabrio, Snowpulse Highmark Ridge, K2 Backside Float and Black Diamond Halo 28.
Once locating a skier’s general position beneath the slide debris, probes that can range between 6 and 10 feet or longer are essential in pinpointing the victim’s location, as well as measuring the burial depth.
Typically built from aluminum or carbon, each offers advantages and disadvantages. Aluminum poles are slightly heavier but able to penetrate tough, dense snow more effectively. Carbon is lighter in weight but also tends to be more expensive.
▪ Costing about $50, popular models include Black Diamond QuickDraw, Mammut Probe, BCA Stealth, G3 Speed Tech, K2 Alu, Pieps iProbe One, FXR and Lifelink.
Don’t take just any old fixed-length ski pole into the backcountry with you. Adjustable poles show their value in a variety of situations. It’s nice to have one pole short (in your uphill hand) and one pole longer (in the downhill hand) when traversing your way up a steep skin track. Set your poles long for double-poling situations and your lower back will thank you. Need your hands free for a technical climb? Telescoping them down to their shortest length will keep them out of the way when strapped to your backpack.
▪ Typically costing between $70 and $150, most ski pole manufacturers offer adjustable touring models. Check out selections from Black Diamond, Leki, K2, G3, Swix and BCA.